By Alison Levin

When shoppers enter a store, it likely never occurs to them how much time has been spent crafting the perfect displays. However, store merchandising is pure strategy. What will catch the eye? How to best work with the given space? For this article, five retailers discussed their merchandising philosophies.

The retail shop at the Big Bend Conservancy, Big Bend National Park, Texas, strives to function as an extension to the educational displays in the National Park Service visitor centers. “Every time a visitor glances around our store and says, ‘I didn’t know there were bears (or dinosaurs, or rock art sites) in this park!’, we consider that a success,” said Retail Buyer Ann Wildermuth

There are six retail shops at Big Bend, ranging in size from under 150 square feet to 900 square feet. In each shop, the general merchandising strategy is to use the front of the store to display some fun, eye-catching pieces that relate to some of the lesser-known features of the park. Basic safety and orientation items are also located towards the front, while more in-depth books and guides are displayed in the back. “We also make ample use of shelf tags for new items, to catch the attention of repeat visitors,” Wildermuth said.

A view of the store at the Jefferson National Parks Association in St. Louis, Mo. The store’s long-time, loyal employees are an asset to the operation.

The Big Bend gift shops are meant to feel like part of the park visit instead of a side trip. “We want them to see informative things that make them excited about the adventure they are going to have,” said Wildermuth. More often than not, that excitement they feel encourages them to pick up an interesting souvenir to help them remember and share their experience. 

There are three permanent staff members at the Big Bend shops, and each employee has lived and worked in Big Bend for many years. While none of the employees has had formal training in retail management, each one is very knowledgeable about the park, as well as trends in visitation and visitor needs. The shops at Big Bend brought in $750,000 in annual sales in 2018, and sales for 2019 are a bit below that, given the recent government shutdown.

For Carol Fredrick, gift shop manager at St. Mary’s Hospital, Richmond, Va., the gift shop presents an opportunity to give customers a nice change of pace. “We are a hospital, so often our customers are people who are a bit stressed out. We want to welcome them into the shop to give them a break from anything else that is going on. Hopefully they feel relaxed when they visit the shop and even have some fun,” Fredrick said.

Speaking of fun, Fredrick said they like to have a good time with the displays in the shop by keeping them bright, eye-catching, and a little unexpected. “We have mannequins in the window, and it’s fun to do something unusual with them – like putting handbags upside down on their heads,” Fredrick said. “It’s just a little touch that adds an element of fun and it makes someone walking by take notice.” Fredrick creates the shop’s displays, along with the hospital’s director of retail services. Both have a background in retail, so their approach to merchandising comes with a heavy dose of knowledge.

At the Jefferson National Parks Association retail shop, clean lines and openness are the overall vision.

Sales from the bookstore at Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia directly benefit the park’s interpretive programs and the shop itself is a reflection of these unique events. “Our displays always correlate to what is going on around the park that month. For example, in February the park focused on Black History Month, so our displays in the shop centered around that theme,” said Whitney Richards, operations manager. 

Richards is responsible for merchandising the shop and her goal is to evoke a feeling of comfort in the customers who enter the store. “I have worked in retail for a long time which has helped me to learn how to merchandise appropriately. Attending trade shows, like the Public Lands Alliance (PLA), are helpful as well. The classes you can take at these shows are so important and teach you many tips and tricks,” Richards said.

Every six months, Richards can be found completely rearranging the store, but she also constantly freshens up the displays and moves items around. “Freshening up displays by moving merchandise around gives new energy to the products,” stated Richards.

The retail shop at the Jefferson National Parks Association, St. Louis, Mo., benefits from having loyal employees who have been around for quite a while. While Rick Trigg, retail operations manager, steps in for any big store overhauls, the front line staff handles the bulk of the merchandising. “These staff members have been around over 20 years, so they are very knowledgeable about what works as far as our displays go,” said Trigg.

The overall vision for this 3,500-square-foot shop is to strive for clean lines and openness. “We want our guests to be able to walk in and feel like everything is neat and organized, and that they can see throughout the whole shop,” remarked Trigg. “If you have to search for items and peek around corners, shopping becomes difficult.” The store does not require a complete changeover very often, but displays are updated as new product lines are introduced.

At Out of the Blue Ltd., a full service specialty toy shop in Albuquerque, N.M., the store rarely gets completely rearranged. “It’s important for our returning customers to know where everything is,” said Store Manager Lisa Gallegos. “For example, we have a section where we keep our puzzles and games and we are not ever going to move that to a different location. We want our guests to know just where to go for those items and not ever be confused. Merchandise may change, but not the location of those categories.”

In fact, that is just how Gallegos prefers to set up the store – categorically. Everything has its own section, because that makes it easier for shoppers to find what they need. “In addition to creating categories, we also merchandise by age, while keeping aesthetics in mind, as well. We are mindful of all of these aspects, when it comes to displays. It is all very well thought out so that it looks pleasing and also makes sense,” Gallegos said. 

While Gallegos handles the majority of the merchandising in the shop, she does welcome help from other staff members, and considers all input. “I did not study merchandising, but have a great instinct for it. I have a strong understanding of aesthetics and spacial relations, which is helpful when it comes to creating displays that make an impact,” Gallegos said.

Speaking about the shop, Gallegos said that she hopes customers find it very welcoming. Fun, upbeat music plays throughout the store, and terrific novelty items are situated by the front door to capture the attention of guests upon entering. Said Gallegos, “It is not just about great displays, but also about making sure customers feel excited right as they walk into the shop. Evoking that feeling right from the start can make such a difference.”